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Brain Scans Find Porn Addiction

Pornography addicts show the same kind of brain activity as drug addicts and alcoholics in response to the source of their addiction, according to a new study from Cambridge University. The as-yet unpublished study was featured in a documentary entitled “Porn on the Brain,” which aired in the United Kingdom in September 2013.

The study took MRI brain scans from 19 pornography addicts in order to record their brain activity under stimulation. All 19 subjects reported compulsive pornography use, an inability to stop using pornography despite attempts to do so, and the loss of jobs or relationships as a result of compulsive pornography viewing.

The 19 subjects, all men between the ages of 19 and 34, underwent brain scans during which they were shown both erotic images as well as exciting but non-explicit sporting images. The brain scan images were compared with the brain images of alcoholics and drug addicts under similar stimulation, such as viewing an advertisement for alcoholic beverages. As a control, a separate group of people who did not report compulsive pornography use also underwent MRI scans while viewing pornographic and non-pornographic imagery.

The researchers, lead by Cambridge University honorary consulting neuropsychiatrist Dr. Valerie Voon, found that both groups of addicts showed heightened activity in the ventral striatum, one of the reward centers of the brain. This activity was much weaker while the pornography addicts were viewing the exciting but non-pornographic sporting images. They were also much weaker in the control group, consisting of people with no known addiction or pattern of compulsive behavior, when they viewed the erotic imagery.

The release of the documentary and the results of this study come as U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is leading a government proposal to limit access to the availability of pornographic material online. The proposal is an effort to limit exposure to pornographic material among children and adolescents under age 18. The pressure to institute automatic blocks to pornographic websites has been on the rise in the U.K., where a study recently revealed that boys as young as 13 regularly view explicit material online.

Confirming Suspicions

The Cambridge study is the strongest evidence to date in favor of a hypothesis that has gained widespread traction: that compulsive pornography use is as much a true addiction as alcoholism or drug addiction. Furthermore, the similarities in brain activity between these different kinds of addiction suggest that treatment for compulsive pornography use should be taken seriously, and perhaps approached along similar lines as modern treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction.

Supporters of the pornography addiction hypothesis have long pointed to similarities between the behavior of compulsive pornography users and drug or alcohol addicts. Like those who suffer from these more widely accepted addictions, compulsive pornography users exhibit behaviors such as pursuing their addiction even when it is detrimental to their health and well-being, an inability to quit in spite of a desire to do so, and cravings. A 2007 article in Science magazine labeled compulsive pornography use an addiction, and psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover argued in favor of the addictive nature of pornography during his 2008 testimony before the U.S. Congress.

Evidence of the addictive nature of pornography is expected to increase pressure on the U.K. government to institute blocks on adult videos and images. This kind of media would be unavailable to Internet users unless they chose to opt out of the automatic blocks. Should the proposed blocks go into effect, homes in the U.K. would be contacted by their Internet service provider and would have to request that the filters be turned off if they do not want such material blocked.

Advocates of the blocks argue that pornography is not only potentially damaging to the mental, emotional and social health of users in its own right, it is also dangerous because of its addictive potential. As a result, advocates say that the government has a responsibility to protect children from pornographic imagery that goes beyond morality, or other subjective ideas.

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